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What makes us human? Or modern human?

Two Vidi subsidies for Faculty of Archaeology.

Innovational Research Incentive Scheme

The Vidi is a research subsidy from NWO's Innovational Research Incentive Scheme under which postdocs who have several years of research experience are awarded a subsidy of a maximum of 800,000 euros to set up or expand an innovative line of research.

This year Gerrit Dusseldorp and Josée Joordens are among the Eleven Leiden researchers to be awarded this subsidy. Both study the development of humans. One as a species and the other as becoming behaviourally modern.

Overview of the excavation by Eugène Dubois at Trinil, Java. The photo was taken in November 1900 from the right bank of the river Solo (credit: Photo DUBO1399, Dubois Collection, Naturalis, Leiden, The Netherlands).

Josée Joordens: Getting to know Homo erectus in Trinil

In the 1890s, the Dutch scientist Eugène Dubois proved Darwin right by finding the first fossils of our extinct relative Homo erectus at Trinil on Java (Indonesia). Since then, one of the major questions of humankind has been to find out “what made us human”. 

H. erectus was morphologically in many ways like us, and the first hominin species to spread over Africa, Eurasia and Southeast Asia from about 1.8 Ma onwards. However, it is still unknown what behavioural and lifestyle characteristics caused H. erectus to achieve this cosmopolitan distribution. I contend that the site of Trinil on Java is the ideal location to study this research question: our recent discovery of an engraved fossil shell from Trinil, published in Nature, indicates that behavioural differences between Javanese H. erectus and modern humans may be smaller than previously thought.

The joint Indonesian-Dutch Studying Homo erectus Lifestyle and Location (SHeLL) project aims to establish the geochronological, climatic- environmental and behavioural context of H. erectus at Trinil, to resolve hominin biogeography on Java and ultimately “what made us human”. The project comprises analysis of existing fossil collections from Trinil and an integrated geo-archaeological re-excavation of Trinil, providing a unique opportunity to look with new eyes at a flagship site of human evolution.

Gerrit Dusseldorp at Shongweni

Gerrit Dusseldorp: Finding resolution for the Middle to Later Stone Age transition

This research addresses the question when and why humans become behaviourally modern. This has been debated since the 1980s, and the debate is largely driven by finds from southern Africa. The early Later Stone Age (LSA, ~40-20 000 years ago) is seen as the culmination of human behavioural evolution. During this period, humans consistently left material traces similar to that of present day hunter-gatherers (e.g. beads, small sophisticated stone tools). This behavioural change coincides with an anatomical change: southern Africans become more gracile. It has also been implicated in the successful migration of modern humans out of Africa.

However, the origin of the LSA is poorly understood. Good chronological control is lacking as available radiocarbon dates were obtained using outdated protocols. The stone technology is traditionally characterised by the presence of bipolar technique and use of quartz. However, detailed knowledge of change in tools and tool production is missing. In addition, though global climate change has been invoked as a causal factor, regional environmental information is not available. 

This subsidy allows us to tests two hypotheses based on three ‘forgotten’ key-sites that will be re-investigated: Shongweni North and South Caves and Umhlatuzana Shelter, in KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa). 

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